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America: the New Netherlands?


Do you ever wonder why you're reading this dispatch in English and not say, Dutch or Swedish or German? Or why instead of living in New Netherlands, people now live in a state called New York? If you're like me, you probably never gave a second thought to these questions. Nowadays, people in the U.S. take for granted our primary language - English -- and the familiar names of places. But in the 1600s, such questions were far from settled. Many European countries were duking it out, trying to claim land in North America. In addition to fighting one another, Europeans were confronted with the Native populations, the inhabitants of the land the Europeans considered the "New World."

As I headed out to Delaware with my chauffeur -- Teddy -- at the wheel, I realized that long before the thirteen colonies tried to separate themselves from the British, there was a big battle to determine which European country would dominate America in the first place. The history of Delaware is a great example of European conflict in the "New World." Because Delaware is such a tiny state, we tend to ignore its history, focusing instead on the Puritans in Massachusetts or the Quakers in Pennsylvania. But as I found out, Delaware's colonial beginnings are also very important. They show how, before England gained prominence in the colonies, the Netherlands and Sweden had their own dreams to pursue in the "New World."

In the early 1600s, the Dutch were in their Golden Age of prosperity. They were making money all over the world: from gold, ivory and slaves in West Africa, from sugar in Brazil and Surinam, and from tobacco and gemstones in the West Indies. Seeking easier routes around the world, The Dutch East India Company hired Henry Hudson, a famous English sailor, to find a "Northwest Passage" to Asia. Instead, he found the Delaware River. In 1609, Henry Hudson became the first European to reach the shores of Delaware, arriving on a boat called the Half Moon. On the land Hudson claimed, in 1624, Holland established its first colony in North America, calling it New Netherlands.

Then, as the legend goes, Peter Minuit, Director-General of the Dutch East India Company, bought Manhattan Island from its native inhabitants for $24 and a few trinkets, adding that land to the colony. But the Dutch people weren't too eager to move to America. By 1628, the colony had only 270 people, most of whom weren't even Dutch. As many as 18 languages may have been spoken in the area.

There were several reasons why the Dutch weren't so eager to come to the "New World." First, the Netherlands was a pretty good place to live. Unlike England, the Netherlands allowed religious freedom, so people didn't have to leave to practice their beliefs. Rather than trying to spread Dutch civilization around the world, the Dutch were interested in making profits. Few Dutch citizens were adventurous enough to want to brave a long, cold journey across the ocean to arrive in a place they knew little about. Since they weren't interested in spreading their culture, the Dutch didn't intend for their colonies to be permanent settlements. Dutch explorers were expected to make as much short-term profit as possible and then go home. Settlers did not get to own land. To top it off, a Dutch group that attempted the first real settlement in Delaware was massacred by Native Americans in 1631. Therefore, for many Dutch, the "New World" held little romance. These attitudes played a big role in the development of Delaware -- and at the center of it all, as in New Netherlands, was Peter Minuit.

Minuit had a falling-out with the Dutch East India Company. The rumor is that the company felt he was spending too much money and not making enough of it. Bitter about this rejection, Minuit decided to become leader of the New Sweden Company. The Swedish government wanted to compete with the Dutch for the fur trade. However, unlike the Dutch, the Swedes wanted to create a whole new version of Sweden in North America, complete with conversion of "savage Indians" to Christianity.

In December 1637, Minuit set off with 25 men on the Kalmar Nyckel and the Vogel Grip, arriving in Delaware three months later. On the trip were Swedes, Finns, Germans, and Dutch, plus one free black man from the Caribbean. We learned that last detail when we visited a replica of the Kalmar Nyckel, built only a few years ago. When I tried to imagine myself spending three months at sea on this big ship, my stomach got queasy. How those early settlers survived sea sickness I will never know!

Minuit built a fort to house his men, naming it "Fort Christina" after the Queen of Sweden. At that time, she was only twelve years old! Minuit also tried to get ownership of the land from the natives who lived there. He had cunningly brought along items he thought the Native Americans would trade for: axes, hatchets and mirrors. While the Lenape tribe gladly shared their land with the Swedes, they did not know they were signing away their right to hunt, fish, gather and plant on it. This is because the Lenape tribe had no concept of private property. The Swedes, on the other hand, believed that the land was now entirely theirs.

Minuit was faced with another problem: the Dutch had claimed this land decades ago. Trying to show that the Dutch claims to the land were false, four members of the Kalmar Nyckel testified that they "neither found nor observed any sign or vestige of Christian people" when they arrived. Depending on how you look at it, Peter Minuit and his Swedish colony were invaders who snatched the Lenape's land, or crooks who took the land from the Dutch. In any case, for over a decade, New Sweden prospered.

But by the late 1640s, tension between the Dutch and the Swedes in Delaware was boiling over. The Dutch saw the Swedes as trespassers - and now they were taking over the Dutch fur trade! The governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, was determined to get back the Dutch East India Company's land. In 1651, he tried to cut off Fort Christina's trade routes by building his own fort on the Delaware River. In response, the Swedes captured the Dutch fort -- until Peter brought in seven warships and an army of 300 soldiers. Without firing a single shot, the Swedes gave up control of their only real settlement in North America. Around Fort Casimer sprung up a city the Dutch called New Amstel.

Meanwhile, the English were hungrily eyeing New Netherlands. When the English invaded in 1664, most of the settlers in the Dutch colony pledged allegiance to the King of England - Peter Stuyvesant had been such a bad governor! After taking over New Netherlands, the English easily took control of New Amstel and all of Delaware.

The English immediately started renaming the colonies and cities. New Netherlands became New York, and New Amsterdam became New York City. Both were named after after the Duke of York, the King's brother. New Amstel became New Castle, and New Sweden got the name Wilmington. These are the names we know and use today. When the Quaker William Penn first came to North America to set up his "Holy Experiment," he landed first in New Castle.

While they lost to the English, Sweden and the Netherlands made a lasting contribution to the early formation of the thirteen colonies, adding their cultures to the American mix. At the Old Swedes Church, built in 1699, Dutch and Swedes and numerous others worshipped together. We visited the Church - the oldest in the U.S. that still holds services every Sunday -- on a dreary rainy day. Feeling the bricks beneath our feet, seeing the 300-year-old pulpit, I felt the Church represented the best trends in American history. After one generation of rivalry, the Dutch and Swedes were able to let go of their conflict and move forward.

Just think -- if history had taken a different turn, we might be speaking Dutch!


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - When greed for money can make a good idea go bad
Neda - The mysterious and spooky disappearance of an entire colony!
Irene - The Quakers: peaceful individuals or radical rebels?
Team - Hero? villain? The team gets MAD about Columbus